Steven Walters
The State of Politics

How Trump Could Change Wisconsin

Walker and Republicans expect lots of federal money for the state.

By - Nov 21st, 2016 10:23 am
Scott Walker and Donald Trump.

Scott Walker and Donald Trump.

What happens when the political universe aligns in the following way?

President-elect Donald Trump owes his victory to new red states like Wisconsin. Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, is from Kenosha. Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is chief policy wonk – and speaker – of the U.S. House. A shiny new policy initiative could help Gov. Scott Walker’s potential third-term bid in 2018. And, Republicans control both houses of the Legislature by the largest margins in decades.

Answer: Wisconsin will be ground zero for President Trump’s experiments in federal/state relations.

Start with Trump’s promise for an investment of between $500 billion and $1 trillion in the nation’s infrastructure – highways, bridges, the Internet, etc.

It may take years to get approved by Ryan and Congress, but an infrastructure package of that size would eventually help close the $939-million gap between Wisconsin’s highway system needs and available cash in the 2017-19 state budget.

Walker and Assembly Republicans differ on how to close that gap, with the governor refusing to raise taxes or fees without any offsetting cut in other taxes or spending.

Walker’s Transportation Department also proposed borrowing $500 million more by mid-2019, in addition to the $850-million borrowed in the current budget. Assembly Republicans hate the idea of adding to existing credit-card debt.

This year, federal aid for all Wisconsin transportation programs totals $865 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.  That means the federal government is paying $1 out of every $4 that state government is spending on transportation this year.

But what if the Trump Administration’s infrastructure package doubled that federal aid in 2019, and each year after that? The fight between Assembly Republicans and Walker goes away – for now – and the “just fix it” wishes of road builders, contractors and local governments will have been granted.

And, while the Trump-Priebus-Ryan power triangle is at it, they could make one other change that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wants: Letting states like Wisconsin phase in tolls on major highways – a process that would take three years, Vos told reporters last week.

Also, what could happen to Wisconsin spending on Medicaid, which one in five state residents rely on for health care, if the federal government went to a bloc grant system of paying its share of that program? Medicaid, which cares for the poor, elderly and disabled, has been eating up the increase in state tax revenues for years.

This year, the federal government is paying Wisconsin $5.03 billion to cover its share of Medicaid costs.

But what if, by 2019, the federal government tells Wisconsin elected officials, “We’ll give you $5.2 billion for Medicaid coverage – no strings attached. You Cheeseheads figure out who qualifies for it, what services to cover and not cover, and reimbursement rates.”

Walker and Republicans in the Capitol would love that authority, since they last year floated a trial-balloon plan to limit Medicaid costs. A firestorm of election-year public criticism killed that plan, and could do so again.

It could take years for Medicaid to become a bloc grant program run by states.

But a Trump Administration could quickly approve the Walker Administration’s request to impose these new requirements on childless adults on Medicaid: Charge premiums, including surcharges for bad health habits. Require a health risk assessment. Limit coverage to 48 months. Require a drug screen to continue to get Medicaid benefits.

Also, if President Trump downsizes and dials back the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, how – and when – will that federal agency respond to environmentalists’ charges that the state Department of Natural Resources has been too lax in enforcing water-quality laws. Or would a defanged EPA drop that investigation outright?

When he was unanimously re-elected speaker last week, Vos invited Trump, Priebus and Ryan to treat Wisconsin as Exhibit A in the coming new era of federal/state relations. Vos and Priebus have been pals since their days as UW-Whitewater Young Republicans.

“They want to devolve power from a faraway capitol and turn it over to people like us,” Vos told his 65-member GOP caucus.

Wisconsin should be first when the Trump Administration turns state governments into “laboratories of democracy,” Vos added.

Out-of-power Democrats have a term for what that would make Wisconsin residents: “Lab rats.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

3 thoughts on “The State of Politics: How Trump Could Change Wisconsin”

  1. Tom Rygh says:

    What about high speed rail? Who wins on that one, Walker, in a most unreasonable fashion, hates it and killed it, Trump, like the rest of the modern world, loves it and embraces it. Who wins out? Its a federal system, just like the interstate highway.

  2. Rich says:

    Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is chief policy wonk

    Why do you or any other person writing things for consumption by the public continue to lend credence to this title for Paul Ryan. Once — if ever — he comes up with any actual policies that will benefit all people and not just rich business interests, then maybe we’ll listen and continue reading articles past the third sentence.

  3. myfivecents says:

    Since when does Walker accept Federal dollars for transportation? Didn’t he vehemently turn down Federal funds for high speed rail and any other federal funding what would really help provide jobs for people and provide healthcare for them? Some of those healthcare dollars would have also gone for new hires in the healthcare industry to provide services for all of the new people who would be seeking health care. He then continued to turn away federal funds except where it would have come out of the state’s coffers if he turned it down. Since they already decide who gets Medicaid and who doesn’t, giving them a block grant to do the same thing they are now doing won’t make any difference.

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